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November 2, 2011

Schooled

Even though I was only 9 years old in 1986, I have been trying to ameliorate, forget or otherwise recover from one error in judgment that has dogged my every step for the past 25 years.

I bought some terrible records.

It was a clear summer day when I followed closely, cloyingly, behind my brother who, at 15, was likely riddled with the existential uncertainty and angst attendant to that age, which at least, and on balance, offer some of the necessary emotional material required to make good and reasonable musical purchases. For my part, I was thrilled to be tagging along with my big brother, who introduced me that afternoon to two pursuits that proved integral to my development as a human: looking for records and comic books.

At the Great Escape, the first comics I ever bought were the extremely graphic and very dark ’80s re-boot of “The Shadow” and a Don Rosa “Uncle Scrooge.” Of everything available in that store, a Scottish cartoon duck swimming around in gold coins and a fedora-sporting vigilante murdering everything in sight were simply irresistible to my 9-year-old mind. Equally irresistible and, ironically, much more psychically perilous were the purchases I made next door at a small record shop whose red and yellow sign, featuring the cryptic, tantalizing words “ear X-tacy,” had only recently been hung on Bardstown Road.

45s dangled from strings in the modest storefront window like low-hanging forbidden fruit. The 500-square-foot room was crammed with bins of cassettes, 45s, LPs and shifting packs of feral creatures called audiophiles. I was short then, and had to stand up on the two-by-four cross braces that ran along the front of the bins in order to see anything. Because it was my first experience shopping for records, I didn’t realize that being paralyzed with indecision in a record store was a chronic, episodic condition that would plague me for the rest of my life.

When my brother told me we were leaving, I fitfully made some purchases, which, however regrettable now, were formative.

The cover of Billy Ocean’s When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going 7” single features Ocean in a white suit and a pink T-shirt. That image represented, in miniature, all that was actually important in my life at the time, namely “Miami Vice,” and was proof positive that whatever jams lay within were sure to make me cool. As something of an insurance policy against the unlikely failure of Billy Ocean to ensure my successful transition from hopeless 9-year-old geek into smoove-but-tender playa’, I went ahead and picked up the Kenny Loggins’ soundtrack single “Danger Zone” from the ideological demon-hammer blockbuster “Top Gun.”

These were the first records I ever bought with my own money, and I’ve been trying to claw my way out of the psychic rubble ever since.

How did I get to the Misfits within three years of such a grievous false start? How was salvation at the hands of Pink Floyd, Funkadelic, Black Sabbath, John Coltrane, Kinghorse, Townes Van Zandt, Nina Simone, Evergreen, Leonard Cohen, Jesus Lizard, The For Carnation, Bruce Springsteen, Outkast, etc. ad infinitum realized by the same twerp who needed a boost to check out the Kenny Loggins section?

People and institutions that care about good music, that’s how: friends, family, record stores and curiosity.

ear X-tacy provided the potential for me to become a successful listener by offering the materials of my first cataclysmic failure as a music consumer.

The word ecstasy comes from the Greek ek-stasis — to stand outside of one’s self.

On one hand, music is an explicit request, even a demand, to step outside of ourselves and consider the creative expressions of “the other.” But how to account for what is the most incredible effect of listening, in which the vantage point provided by ek-stasis allows us to see ourselves in the act of self-realization through the creativity of others?

Every single person who has ever come to understand, deeply and securely, that Nick Cave’s Let Love In was meant specifically for them had to listen to it first.

Right now I’m standing outside of myself. I can see Bardstown Road from above. I can see a thousand red and yellow lines that trail in and out of four addresses on one street in my hometown. They trace the discoveries and successes, failures and curiosity of an education.

Thank you, John and ear X-tacy friends, for schoolin’ me. 

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